on practice

Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

This article was originally written for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. Supporters of Wildmind get access to more than 30 online courses I’ve developed, as well as other articles and guided meditations.

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A letter to Jacob

picture of mailboxes

I get some interesting emails. Usually they’re kind and appreciative. I particularly enjoy hearing from people who have found things I’ve written, or guided meditations I’ve recorded, to be helpful. Often people ask questions, and I’m happy to reply to them to the best of my ability.

Sometimes the emails I get are critical, though, and this one that arrived just a few days ago falls into that camp.

It’s from someone who called himself Jacob, although I don’t know if that’s his real name. I don’t know if it’s your real name, I should say, since this blog post is my reply to you, Jacob. (You used a fake email address, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to address your comments directly.)

Here’s the email you sent. You’ll find my reply below:

Name: Jacob
Email: FAKE ADDRESS @outlook.com
Message:
Do your supporters know they are in fact supporting your living in a 400K condo, STEPHEN?
You are hardly a Buddhist with a begging bowl, now are you? Unless and until you make full disclosure online of this hithertofore undisclosed material fact to those supporters you are in my view being unethical.

Isn’t that a Buddhist no-no? Tis odd how you have never mentioned this before…

[link to my apartment’s Zillow listing removed]

So, Jacob, you did your homework and tracked down my home on a real estate site! More about that in a moment.

And you also found my family name, which was indeed Stephen until I legally changed my name after my ordination in 1993. So that hasn’t been my last name for a long time.

I believe this is called “deadnaming,” where a person insists on using someone’s former name. It’s like if a woman gets married and changes her surname, yet someone insists on using her maiden name. The point of doing this is to cause offense by refusing to recognize something that is important to the other person. So that’s not a good start, Jacob. You’re forgiven, though! This has happened to me many times, and it really doesn’t bother me.

Let’s get back to the house thing, though. Yes, you did your homework and looked up my home address online.

Unfortunately you didn’t do your homework very thoroughly. The reason I have never mentioned that I live in a “$400k condo” is because the address you linked to in your email is actually the rented apartment that I share with my partner.

You’d have seen that it was a rental apartment if you’d dug around a little more in the Zillow listing.

Here’s the relevant part. I’ve circled where it mentions the rent. Just below that it uses the word “tenant.” I admit it’s a little confusing, since it also mentions “condo dues” for reasons I can’t guess at, except that my landlord’s secretary is a bit of a character and a little odd in the way she writes things — maybe you can get a flavor of that in the listing! She *loves* asterisks!! And exclamation marks!! It’s kind of fun!!

(It’s also odd that she says that the apartment is available August 19th. I’m assuming this is an old listing, since we’re still living here!)

Image

Anyway, no, I do not live in a $400,000 condo. I don’t own a house. I can’t afford one at present.

I rent an apartment with my partner. It’s not a luxury apartment: the rent is $1,765, including a $50 fee for our two dogs and a surcharge because my kids stay here part-time. (Landlords, eh? They’ll get you for everything!) We’d like to own our own place one day, so that our dogs can have a yard to run around in, and we’re trying to save for that. Of course I’ll be in my 90’s by the time the mortgage is paid off, if we can ever find a place we can afford.

I said our apartment is not a luxury apartment. It’s a decent place to live, although it’s not in the nicest part of town. Until a couple of months ago we had a couple of meth addicts living downstairs from us. They weren’t too much trouble except when their cigarette smoke and weed came up into our apartment. Fortunately they didn’t burn the place down before they left. I took a walk-through after they’d gone and while the apartment was being gutted, and the carpets were covered in cigarette burns. Oh, and dog shit from their pit bull! So, not a luxury apartment, and not in the best part of town. Good news: our new downstairs neighbors are a lovely young couple!

It’s not the worst part of town either, though. We’re right beside some woods where I like to walk the dogs.

But even if I had lived in a $400k condo, what would that mean, Jacob? It could have been inherited. It might be my partner’s. I might have bought it at some time in my life when I had a high paying job and now be living in poverty. (Although there’s never a time I had a high-paying job.) I might be sleeping on the couch in a friend’s house. There are lots of possibilities one could consider.

Also, a minor point: in the area where I live, a $400,000 house is well below the median house sale price of $550,000 (crazy, eh!), which is why I’m renting. So if I had owned this place it would be a below-average house in a fairly working-class town.

You demanded that I “make full disclosure online of this hitherto-fore undisclosed material fact,  Jacob. So here it is. I can’t disclose that I live in an expensive condo, because I don’t. But I do disclose that I live in a rented apartment, splitting $1,765 of rent with my partner.

And no, I’m not a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl. (Although I am a Buddhist.) I have two adopted children and two rescue dogs, and (as mentioned) a partner. I’m not rich, either. I recently bought a five-year-old Prius C (a hybrid electric/gasoline vehicle) that I got from a friend at a good price. It’s replaced my previous car, a 12-year-old Mazda6, which I bought used eight years ago, and which has 216,000 miles on the clock — most of them from the previous owner, who did a lot of driving. I have virtually no savings because I just gave them to the friend who sold me the Prius. (By the way, I’m absolutely loving the fuel economy and I’m glad to know that my carbon footprint has shrunk.) Oh, I have no pension plan either.

I basically just scrape by, and often experience anxiety because I have to juggle bills. So it’s kind of ironic to be accused of being wealthy.

Apart from three years in Scotland when I worked for the Community Education Department in Lanarkshire, I’ve spent my entire adult life either as a student or working full-time to teach meditation and Buddhism. It’s not a lucrative way to make a living. When I ran a retreat center in the Scottish Highlands, or an urban Buddhist center in Edinburgh, or worked in a Buddhist right livelihood business I basically got my food and board covered, plus some pocket money. Things are better now, but it’s still often a struggle to get by. It’s been worth it, though. Even though I don’t have any savings and will probably never be able to retire, I enjoy what I do. I especially find it heart-warming to know that I’ve helped people become happier.

Anyway, It’s very easy to jump to conclusions, Jacob. We’ve all done it. If you’d just asked a question and given a real email address, I’d have been happy to reply with the information you were seeking. I imagine that you have concerns about “gurus” making vast sums of money, and there are good historical reasons for having those concerns. But believe me, that’s not my situation in the slightest.

Hopefully this has set your mind at ease, if you’re reading this. I hate to think that you’re out there suffering because you mistakenly believe I’m some kind of rich guru. And maybe other people think the same thing?

Money is tricky when you teach meditation. Much of the time in the past I’ve taught courses that had suggested donations, with plenty of leeway for people who couldn’t afford the full amount. Right now the bulk of the income that pays my rent and bills comes from monthly contributions from supporters. These are people who appreciate the teaching I do, and who pay a sum each month to Wildmind (the amount varies from person to person) to make it possible for me to explore and teach meditation. This is what I do full time. Being supported in that way is my dream!

Unfortunately the amount that comes in from supporters isn’t enough to cover my expenses, so I have to do other bits and pieces of work in order to make ends meet. I do long for the day when I no longer have to worry about money. (And I’d love my dogs to have a yard to run around in.)

So if you’re reading this, Jacob, and I haven’t annoyed you too much (that’s not my aim at all), and you see some value in what I teach, do feel free to consider becoming one of Wildmind’s supporters. I appreciate all the support I receive, because it allows me to do what I love, which is to teach meditation and help people live happier and more fulfilling lives. If you are interested, you can click on this link.

I hope you’re having a great day, Jacob — and anyone else who’s read this far.

With love,
Bodhipaksa

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How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

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How to recognize, respect, and love your inner demons

This is the first time I’ve posted here in a while. Virtually all of my energy is going into supporting Wildmind’s community of supporters — people who make a financial contribution every month in order to support me to explore and teach meditation and Buddhism. This article is condensed from a couple of pieces of writing I’ve done for them. If you enjoy this, and you’d like to support Wildmind, you can read about the many benefits that our sponsors get by visiting this page.

I’d like to share one of the most powerfully transformative practices I’ve evolved over the years.

Have you heard of Māra? He’s a figure from Buddhist mythology. He’s often portrayed as having conversations with the Buddha and his monks and nuns. These encounters always end with Māra being recognized, at which point he vanishes.

Sometimes Māra is portrayed in art as a demon, but in the scriptures (and in the image above) he’s a good-looking young man. He’s often royally attired, and sometimes holds a lute. We can take this to mean that Māra is a smart smooth-talking Machiavellian.

The name Māra comes from the Sanskrit root, mṛ, which indicates death and destruction. That’s also where we get our words “mortality” and “murder.” Māra is the destroyer or murderer of spiritual practice, and the murderer of peace and joy.

In the scriptures he appears to spiritual practitioners, including the Buddha himself, trying to tempt them out of practicing, or sometimes distracting them or making them afraid. As well as appearing as a young man he can also appear as a fearful animal, such as a snake or wild ox. He can do things like throw boulders down a mountainside in order to cause fear. Or he can make loud and distracting noises happen. He can also create an unpleasant physical sensation.

Māra has lots of ways of distracting people, but he never, as far as I’m aware, actually harms anyone physically. I assume by this that even the earliest Buddhists regarded him as a psychological projection.

Recognizing Māra

If you recognize Māra, he simply vanishes. One time he challenged the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā, who was meditating under a tree, and tried to make her feel afraid that she might be sexually assaulted:

“You’ve come to this sal tree all crowned with flowers,  and stand at its root all alone, O nun. Your beauty is second to none, silly girl, aren’t you afraid of rascals?”

She recognized him, though, and showed him that he was out-classed:

Even if 100,000 rascals like you were to come here,  I’d stir not a hair nor panic. I’m not scared of you, Māra, even alone.  

Māra then disappears. This represents the way in which mindfulness can dispel unskillful or unhelpful thoughts.

And this has become my own practice.

When I’m getting annoyed, or despondent, or impatient, or anxious, just saying “I see you, Māra” — simply recognizing that Māra was trying to trick me — was enough to break his spell and return me to a sense of calmness and balance.

I’d highly recommend trying this. Whenever you’re suffering, or caught up in anger, despondency, worry, and so on, observe the thought processes that are taking place. Observe the feelings arising within you. And then say, “I see you, Māra.” Recognize the forces that are at work within you, trying to throw you off balance. And refuse to let them fool you.

Appreciating Māra

But there’s another aspect of this practice that I’d like to draw out. It’s an aspect that’s very important to me: acknowledging how clever Māra’s tricks are.

As above, the experience of unhelpful emotional arousal acts as a trigger for recognizing Māra. Any of the emotions I described above, and any others that lead to a sense of suffering, are signs that Māra is at work. Even mild distraction in meditation can be a trigger.

Now, rather than just saying, “I see you, Māra,” which is what people do in the scriptures, you can say something like “Nice try, Māra!” This is a way of letting those disruptive inner forces know that I’m onto them, and that I’m refusing to be manipulated.

You can marvel at how convincing Māra’s tricks are. After all, he had you totally fooled! The story that was causing you suffering was totally believable. It seemed that you had to respond with anger, or fear, or despondency, or whatever it was. Someone criticizes you? Well, of course you have to be annoyed and defensive. Money’s tight? Well naturally you have to worry. Something hasn’t worked out as planned? Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

And then the feelings you had were so vivid. They’re like really good special effects in a Hollywood movie. The crushing weight of despondency, the jangling buzz of anxiety, the hot upwelling of annoyance. Those feelings are not just vivid, but are powerfully compelling. It’s as if you had to act on them.

So you can applaud Māra. “Great special effects, Māra! You really had me going there!” Admire the whole process of reactivity. It’s amazing!

There are a couple of reasons that I think this act of appreciation for Māra’s work is important and powerful. One is that appreciation is a skillful state of mind. Even if what you’re appreciating is Māra (who is not skillful), the appreciation itself is still skillful. (It’s not like you’re approving of what he’s doing.) Since appreciation is a skillful state of mind, this helps reinforce your new-found freedom from Māra’s (unskillful) world of delusion.

The other reason that appreciating Māra’s work is helpful is is that you’re appreciating it as a delusion.  You’re recognizing that the feelings that motivate you, and the thoughts and emotions that arise from those feelings, are all illusory.

Seeing the illusory nature of reactions while they’re actually happening is a powerful and liberating practice.

This perspective finds support in teachings like the one where the Buddha compared form (this includes forms we perceive in the world and also those we imagine in the mind), feelings, perceptions, emotions, and consciousness to various illusion-like phenomena:

Form is like a lump of foam;
feeling is like a bubble;
perception seems like a mirage;
emotions like the non-existent core of a banana tree;
and consciousness like a magic trick.

(I’ve tweaked the translation here for the sake of clarity.)

These are the famous “five skandhas (aggregates)” which constitute our experience and which we take to be our “selves.”

Feelings have no substance. Neither do thoughts or emotions. They’re like mirages, dreams, bubbles, or conjuring tricks. They arise within us only as patterns of sensation, caused by the firing of neurons. Why be scared by a bunch of neurons firing?

In talking about the skandhas in the above quote, the Buddha doesn’t mention Māra. Elsewhere, though, he says that they are Māra:

How is Māra defined? Form is Māra, feeling is Māra, perception is Māra, emotions are Māra, consciousness is Māra. Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, emotions, and consciousness.  

It’s by seeing the illusory nature of the skandhas — seeing them as tricks, designed to make us react — that we’re able to disengage from reactivity and find peace.

That’s what’s happening when I admire Māra’s tricks.

Sending Love to Māra

The other night I woke up from an anxious dream in which the US had turned into a fascist state. Once again I recognized Māra and offered him congratulations on how vivid and convincing his special effects were. It wasn’t just that the dream was realistic. It was that the feelings of anxiety in my body had convinced me that something was really wrong.

But at this point I brought another aspect into my practice, which enriched it even more

Māra isn’t literally a demon who’s out to get me. Our inner demons aren’t demons. They’re us. Marā’s a part of my mind, and he’s trying to help, within his definition of help. To this particular Māra, fascism isn’t just something I should be concerned about. He thinks I needed to panic about it. He thinks I needed to be in a state of fear. He thinks he needs to give me good dose of suffering to help me get motivated. He’s misguided in this, but he doesn’t know that. So he’s not my enemy. In fact he needs my compassion. So I regarded Māra with loving eyes, offering him kindness.

Now, even though I was watching the anxiety from a  place of calm and peace, and didn’t feel touched by it, my body was still reacting as if it was in danger. So I embraced it within my loving gaze as well.

Now I felt completely at peace. And although the anxiety that had arisen could conceivably have kept me awake for hours, I was at this point so at ease that I fell back to sleep within minutes.

So I’m going to suggest that every time you feel upset by something or know that suffering it present, recognize that Māra is at work. Don’t just recognize him, but feel some honest appreciation for how convincing his attempts are to get us to suffer. And don’t just admire him, but offer him compassion, and offer your whole being compassion.

And as the scriptures say:

And thereupon that disappointed spirit
Disappeared right on the spot.

And within two or three minutes of being woken by an intensely anxious dream, I fell sleep again, and was untroubled for the rest of the night.

Again, if you find this helpful and you’d like to benefit from more of my teaching activity, please read up on Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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New Year aspirations (rather than resolutions)

When I was younger I used to think that New Year’s Day resolutions would almost automatically bring about change. It was as if thinking that you wanted to change was enough to make it actually happen. I guess I thought this was possible thanks to the “magic” involved in moving from one year to the next.

Of course I’ve learned a lot since then about how slowly inner change happens. And now I see New Year’s resolutions differently, if I even make them. Now they’re an opportunity to think about the direction that I’d like to see the slow change move in. They’re more “aspirations” than resolutions.

There is one thing that’s happening, though, which is both practical and symbolic. It might almost seem like a silly thing, but my bookkeeper is going to be closing our old QuickBooks Online account and opening a new one. The old one has been with me for years. It’s like an old house that you can still live in. But it’s been repaired and altered so many times — often by people who weren’t very sure what they’re doing — that it’s an ugly mess.

For example, in the past Wildmind used to have an online store where we sold meditation supplies. This was supposed to help cover the costs of teaching meditation. We stopped doing that altogether two years ago, and last year I donated several thousand dollars worth of inventory to my local Dharma center so that they can sell it in their little book shop. While it was a relief to get rid of that inventory, there are still all these categories, products, vendor records, and so on in our accounts. It’s a mess. So we’re starting off with new books — clean, light, and set up to reflect what I’m currently doing on Wildmind. It just feels good. And that is almost magical.

But my personal aspiration is to work at being more balanced in my life — especially balancing self-care and self-nourishment, on the one hand, with being creative, productive, and helpful on the other.

  • I think better, create better, and meditate better when I go for regular walks (which my dogs also love, naturally).
  • I’m happier when I take care of my aging body’s need to stretch. When I do that I can be free from pain and have more energy.
  • And my practice has more life and inspiration when I get off on retreat. That’s something I haven’t been able to do in the last couple of years.

So I’m bearing those sorts of things in mind as I enter 2022. They’re not, as I said, examples of “magical thinking.” Change doesn’t happen just because you want it to. I still have to maintain those aspirations in mind (which is work in itself), to be mindful of opportunities to bring more balance to my life, and to be mindful of when things are getting out of balance. So I still have to do the work. But those are the kinds of things I aspire to focus on in order to bring more balance into my life. If I manage that, then 2022 should be both joyful and creative, and hopefully my life will benefit both me and others.

Happy New Year!

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The strange myopia of Buddhist teachings on suffering

woman having caesarian section

I wanted to draw attention to a strange myopia that affects many people who comment on the Buddha’s teachings about suffering.

In the four noble truths, the first truth is that of suffering (dukkha), and it’s described in the following manner:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

Here the Buddha lists a number of occasions for suffering that arise in life. Some, like birth and death, don’t happen in our lives very often. Others, like sickness, are quite frequent. Some, like separation from what we like and being in the presence of things we don’t like take place multiple times in the course even of just one day.

The first instance of suffering that the Buddha gives is birth. It’s a natural place to start, perhaps.

What I find curious is that many, many writers on Buddhism interpret “birth is suffering” solely in terms of “being born is suffering.” This is a long-standing tradition. Fifteen hundred years ago, or so, Buddhaghosa, in his treatise, “The Path of Purification,” listed several ways in which birth is painful. He tells us it’s painful:

  • to be confined in a womb
  • to be physically jarred in the womb when your mother moves around
  • if your mother has a miscarriage
  • to be forced through the birth canal
  • to have your sensitive skin touched after you’ve been born

You’ll notice that this is all focused on the one being born.

Was your birth painful? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember. Presumably it was traumatic at the time, but my brain wasn’t developed enough to commit the details to memory.

Now, would your mother say that birth was painful? Probably! She experienced much more pain than anyone else involved. Was it psychologically painful for her? Probably. It’s a worrying thing to give birth.

Was it painful for your father? Not physically, but he was probably anxious about the health of your and your mother.

Lots of other people were probably anxious too, and relieved when you were born, hopefully healthily.

The Buddha was of course born at a time and place where birth was much more dangerous than it is for most of us reading these words. His own mother is supposed to have died not long after he was born, presumably from complications of childbirth. In many parts of the world, death during or just after childbirth is still common. In fact both of my adopted children’s birth-mothers died this way.

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Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

For me, the most bizarre part of Buddhaghosa’s list is the bit about miscarriages. To consider the suffering involved in such a thing and not give any thought to the experience of the mother is just bizarre.

Buddhaghosa remains an important influence on Buddhism to this day. A lot of Buddhist teaching is essentially what I call “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” And so his myopia becomes the myopia of contemporary Buddhist teachers — or many of them, at least. Just today I listened to a teaching on suffering by a very talented contemporary teacher who explained “birth is suffering” as “being born is suffering.”

Probably because Buddhaghosa was a man who had lived all his life in cultures where men were the focus of attention, he just didn’t give much thought to the experience of women. And he was talking to men. But even those men had mothers and sisters who gave birth, so there’s a kind of misogyny, or at least myopic gender-bias, in operation.

Part of what’s going on here is how people tend to pass on presentations of the Buddha’s teachings in much the same way they had first learned them — including the mistakes and the myopic omissions. So you learn from a book or a talk that “birth is suffering” means “it’s painful to be born,” and that lodges in your brain. And then having learned what this, you stop thinking about the subject. You don’t reflect on it. You don’t compare it to the lived experience of people around you. It’s just a “factoid” that inhabits your brain, in some way isolated from everything else you know.

This lack of reflection on what the Buddha taught bothers me. Not connecting what the Buddha taught to your own lived experience (a teacher may not have given birth, but they’ve surely heard women say how painful it is) bothers me. And of course ignoring the painful experience of half of humanity bothers me. Aren’t empathy and compassion meant to be part of the Buddhist path?

Buddhism is about suffering, and responding wisely and compassionately to suffering. And yet most of the suffering around the topic, “birth is suffering,” gets ignored. That’s kind of weird.

Similar things can be said about death, although that’s a less gendered topic. There’s a form of myopia where “death is suffering” becomes “dying is suffering.” But it’s not just dying that’s painful. It’s painful to have a loved one die. It’s painful to think that one day they will die.

There are many other ways in which Buddhist teachings are passed on from generation to generation in a habitual, unreflecting way. In another article here I tackled a few recurring myths about the Buddha’s life. I’ve written about another mistaken teaching about suffering that is commonly passed on. I could write a book full of these.

All of these repeated misconceptions weaken and dull the teaching of Buddhism. The less teachers (and their students) are able to connect Dharma teachings to their lived experience and to the experience of others, the more abstract the teachings seem. They exist as the “factoids” I mentioned, floating in the mind, untethered to our real lives.

So the next time you hear a teacher talking discussing “birth is suffering” purely in terms of the suffering a fetus and baby go through, I’d suggest that you gently bring up the topic of all the others involved in birth who suffer in more significant ways — the mother above all. It might end up changing Buddhist culture in the west.

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“This is where peace is found”

Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.

Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy

Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.

The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.

So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?

Why are we so drawn to distractedness?

Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.

So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.

Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness

Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.

Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.

It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.

A practice for retraining the mind

So as a practice, I suggest the following.

First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.

Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.

As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.

On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:

  • This [the body] is where happiness is found.
  • This is where peace is found.
  • This is where patience is found.
  • This is where joy is found.
  • This is where calm is found.
  • This is where ease is found.
  • This is where security is found.
  • This is where confidence is found.
  • This is where contentment is found.
  • This is where love is found.
  • This is where awakening is found.

As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.

How this works

Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.

Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.

In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.

In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.

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The one thing that will always slow your mind

All summer I’ve been reading Barry Lopez’s book, “Arctic Dreams” — it’s very, very long and I still have a ways to go — and the other night, I read this line which I’m very grateful for:

Watching animals always slows you down.

As someone who is always looking to slow down on multiple levels, I was really struck by by the suggestion that there’s something out there that will “always” slow me down, at least according to Lopez. In my own experience this has been quite true, even though I’d never thought about it this way.

I was up at our family’s cabin the night I read this line, and the next day, I noticed that indeed, every time I saw wild animals — butterflies, bees, moths, hawks, salamanders, toads, rabbits, deer, many different songbirds, crows, and even a bear in the distance — my interior mental world suddenly downshifted into something slower and more focused.

I wasn’t actively bird-watching or tracking or anything like that, just sitting on the porch or driving or walking along. I realized that the animals I saw were actually changing my interior world by disrupting the mental noise and rushing thoughts with a sudden dawning of slow and quiet focus.

It was such a blessing to notice this, to receive this gift of deeper awareness from Lopez and from the animals around me. I think it’s interesting and lovely that just “watching” them can do this.

It was lovely, too, to note that this has been happening all my life, soothing, healing, calming me beneath my conscious awareness. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am so drawn to wild places and the natural world.

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Twelve free meditation MP3s!

2021 is the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Wildmind website. To celebrate, we’re giving away two albums of guided meditation MP3’s.

  • One album is Guided Meditations for Calmness, Awareness, and Love, which was the first CD I ever recorded. This particular album was the best-selling meditation title on Amazon for several years running. It contains three guided meditations: mindfulness of breathing, lovingkindness, and walking meditations.
  • The other album is from our online course, Get Your Sit Together. It contains nine guided meditations.

DOWNLOAD THE FREE GUIDED MEDITATION ALBUMS HERE.

Please enjoy these meditations!

If You Like These Guided Meditations…

If you enjoy and, more importantly, benefit from these meditations, remember that we have two other options available:

Share the Love!

I’d be very appreciative if you’d share the news about these two free albums as widely as possible. Please hit up your social media friends!

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Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat — without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What Is Interoception?

Interoception is the ability to sense your internal states — sensations arising from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes an awareness of the heart.

Many people find it hard to detect their heartbeat at all, or can only do it with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers aren’t well developed. For others, detecting the heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not a lot of people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first encountered it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t come across it before.

You’re probably going to hear it a lot more in the future, because it’s become obvious that there are drawbacks to having poor interoception.

Not being able to sense the body’s inner states leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine you were driving a car with no fuel gauge. You’d probably keep running out of fuel, because vital information about the state of your vehicle wasn’t available to you.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body is giving you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. By the time you’re aware that you’re anxious, for example, you’re already really anxious. Being able to detect those signals sooner means you’re able to decide earlier to do something to help stay calm.

Interoception and Depression

Low interoceptive ability is related to depression. In a study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety), showed lower ability on the heartbeat test than a control group did.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they reported experiencing in their lives.

Interoception and Poor Decision-Making

And this had an interesting knock-on effect. Low interoceptive awareness is also correlated with difficulty in making decisions. The reason for this is that decision-making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake is more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not whether we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely on the basis of how we feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, then we can’t easily make decisions. In fact if we can’t feel our feelings, then we might well be more prone to making bad decisions — e.g. trusting someone who’s untrustworthy, or choosing a job that’s likely to make us unhappy.

Interoception and Anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do the heartbeat detection test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart at all. I don’t know if there’s research supporting this, but I suspect that certain people can only feel their heartbeat when they’re already anxious, and because they’re not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feeling their heart beat in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really wrong — which precipitates yet more anxiety.

She may be atypical, though: people who suffer from anxiety disorder typically are more aware than average of interoceptive signals from the body. What may be going wrong is that those signals (increased rate and strength of the heartbeat, intestinal queasiness, and so on) are misread, and taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It’s possible, in fact, to become anxious about being anxious.

Meditators are Better at Interoception

Meditation, in the Buddhist tradition at least, emphasizes awareness of the body, which means paying attention to the body’s sensations. Many meditators, myself included, will report that training in meditation has helped to sensitize them to the body.

For myself, this has been like going from a black-and-white line drawing of the body to a full-color image. Any time I bring my attention to the body now I experience currents of energy, tingling, and pleasure—which is called pīti in Pāli and prīti in Sanskrit. That’s very different from how my body used to be experienced. But that’s anecdotal evidence.

Dancers Versus Meditators

In one study I’ve long found fascinating, in a study in 2010, published in Emotion, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotive, film clips to experienced meditators (their average time practicing was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people, and also asked the study participants to indicate their ongoing feeling state (from very negative, through neutral, to very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess to what degree the self-reported experience of the members of each of the three groups matched (or was “coherent” with) their physiological states.

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It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of coherence (that is, their self-reported feelings matched what was going on in their bodies), with the dancers being intermediate, and the control group having the lowest coherence.

Additionally, when it came to self-reported visceral awareness (how well they could feel their feelings), the meditators reported the highest levels, the dancers were intermediary, and the controls reported the lowest levels.

So it does seem that meditation training does improve internal awareness, which is what you might expect. Of course it could be that people with greater visceral awareness are more likely to be drawn to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked to see if there was a correlation between length of practice and body awareness. They didn’t find any significant correlation, but then the sample size was too small for them to draw any definite conclusions.

Interoception Can Be Learned

More recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism tend not to be good at interoceptive tasks. For example they’re not good at counting their heartbeats. At the same time they tend to over-emphasize the internal sensations they do experience. In other words, they’re over-reacting to signals from the body.

The researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism to perform better on heartbeat detection tasks, and that this would in turn help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Amazingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of the participants no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for Interoception

Many approaches to mindfulness of breathing meditation tend to focus narrowly on the breath – that is, the sensations of air touching the passages as it moves in and out of the body. This helps with learning interoception in only a very limited way.

My own approach has been increasingly to encourage an awareness of the movements and sensations of the breathing in the whole body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” helps you to sense the entire body breathing — including subtler sensations you might habitually ignore. Please try it, and see how you get on.

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